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Overcoming Water Shyness

What to do when your bird dog doesn't take to water during the first introduction.

Overcoming Water Shyness

Some dogs are naturally hesitant or scared of water, which requires a little more care and thought to develop their confidence and comfort for getting their feet wet. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

Last year I interviewed a dog trainer who specializes in handling Labradors. We got on the topic of water work and he casually mentioned that not every retriever that comes through his kennel is a natural in the water. When I pressed him on that, he said that he trains quite a few dogs each year that flat-out won’t swim. That wouldn’t be all that surprising with some upland breeds, but for a webbed-toed dog with a long history of water retrieves in its job title, it is. While water shyness is not an ideal situation for any hunting dog, it is usually fixable.

Water Intros Gone Wrong

The best course of action for getting any dog to love water is to do the initial introduction correctly. This involves waiting for a scorcher of a day, getting the dog worked up through exercise or drilling, and then moving on to some no-pressure exposure to a warm body of water. If that body of water has a hard bottom that gently slopes, that’s even better. In this case, most pups will go in without much encouragement. They might not swim right away, but they will wade in and start building up confidence. A few rounds of this and they usually walk out deep enough to start paddling and then it’s on.

Owner and Lab with a water introduction
When your initial water intro doesn't go according to plan, it's time to get back to basics and outline a program to create a positive experience and allow your dog to feel safe entering the water. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This goes wrong when water is far too cold, too deep, too wavy, or otherwise uncomfortable or scary for your dog. Hesitancy or sheer signs of fear should be heeded, and I shouldn’t have to say this, but I will—never force a dog into water. This is the kind of behavior that will get you kicked right out of the dock-diving circuit and is a great way to firmly embed an unhealthy fear of water into your pup. In a testament to how forgivable our dogs really are, even if they’ve had a terrible introduction as a puppy, some just take to the water later as they mature, but not all do, and that can be a problem.

Starting Over

With a lot of dog issues, it’s not enough to take one or two steps back to remedy them. You usually have to start over from the beginning and with water shyness, that is a necessity. This involves consideration of all the initial introduction steps, but a lot more patience and an eye for the details. For starters, consider finding warm water that is calm and features the right bottom structure. Another point, while I can’t prove this, but it sure seems like dogs are more comfortable walking into water where they can clearly see the bottom versus muddy, murky water.

Yellow Labrador retriever playing in water
Many times, a clear and clean water body with a hard, gently sloping bottom is just what your water-shy dog is looking for. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

It’s also important to plan ahead and figure out what is most important to your dog reward-wise. If that’s a bumper, bring the bumper and make a big show of throwing it in very shallow water at close range. You want 100 percent success here with a minimal amount of fear. If food drive is higher on your dog’s list than a dummy, a handful of kibble just might be enough, but you’ve got to really read the dog’s body language in this situation. If they’re not ready, no amount of caloric incentive will get them in and pushing it is a bad deal.

In either case, throw on your favorite pair of dad Crocs so you can wade in and give the dog time to become comfortable with the situation. They’ll often show anxiety right away if you show up at the water and immediately try to coax them in, but if you let them settle down on shore and sniff around for five minutes they seem to do better. Keep in mind that it’s a better bet for your dog to wade in if it’s 95 degrees versus 75. It’ll also go much better if your dog has run through some drills beforehand or was allowed to stretch his legs out at a nearby park for 20 minutes.

90 degree day for water work
Take the time to plan for an appropriate day for water work; a hot, sunny summer day is likely to make the water that much more inviting to your dog. (Tony J. Peterson photo)


Throughout this process, it’s crucial to remember one thing: Every dog is different. It might take yours six or eight of these attempts before he goes in above his belly line. In a recent chat with professional trainer, Tom Dokken, about introducing my current black Lab puppy, Sadie, to water, he reminded me of that and stressed that I’m not working with my old dog (a dog that took to the water almost instantly).

Our new pup is hesitant, even though we’ve had all of the right pieces in place for an easy introduction. As I write this, we’ve probably made five or six attempts at the water’s edge to see if Sadie will take the plunge. She hasn’t yet, but every time we go she seems to run into the water quicker and it really looks like only a matter of time. This is hard to understand for many of us because we think water introduction should be a quick event. In fact, the missing data from most dog training messages is the amount of time each lesson really takes. While you can boil down water intro, gunfire intro, or learning the place command into a 700-word article or four-minute YouTube tutorial, reality often dictates days of working toward any one of those goals. With some commands, you’re talking weeks or months.

Black Lab retrieving a dummy in water
Every dog is different, which means water introduction with one might not go the same way as another—even if they are the same breed or from the same litter. (Tony J. Peterson photo)

This is also why so many of us amateur handlers get into trouble. We expect our dogs to quickly take to something, but that’s not how it usually goes. It’s no different from teaching a child to read. None of us would get upset at our four-year olds if they couldn’t go from learning the alphabet on Monday to reading War and Peace on Friday. This goes for all dog work and is absolutely necessary for the kind of lessons that involve undoing previous damage like the kind an improper water introduction can cause. The opportunity to reverse-engineer something like that in our hunting dogs is real, but it’s not easy or quick, and just like in life, nothing that is truly worthwhile ever is. So, check that forecast, scout those locations, and give it some time. Eventually you’ll have a more confident dog that happily plows into the drink for a swim.

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